A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A royal body may be that of Rameses I, but can we ever be sure?
The dark brown-black body of a man who may have ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago lies before me on a padded cushion in the conservation laboratory at Emory University's Michael C. Carlos Museum. Seeing it there--stripped of linen wrappings, arms crossed over chest, lids nearly closed over empty eye sockets, dried lips pulled back from teeth--I am amazed at the body's extraordinary preservation and feel an intense curiosity about its identity. Tempering these feelings is the knowledge that, whether or not they are a pharaoh's remains, they are from a person who died and was buried millennia ago only to be sold by tomb robbers in the nineteenth century and exhibited in a Niagara Falls museum alongside a two-headed calf and barrels in which daredevils braved the falls. A sad fate, but that will change because many scholars are now convinced that it is indeed a royal mummy, and Egypt is poised to reclaim it later this year.
Much of the speculation about the Atlanta mummy's identity has centered on the supposed resemblance between it (top) and the mummies (in order) of Seti I, Rameses II, and Rameses V. (The photograph of Seti I is reversed for comparison purposes; image of Atlanta mummy courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum.)
Long-neglected, the mummy came to the public's attention two years ago, after the Niagara Falls museum closed its doors and its Egyptian collection was acquired by Atlanta's Emory University ("New Life for the Dead," September/October 2001). The media, including this magazine, noted the mummy's crossed-arms pose and a resemblance between its face in profile and those of the mummies of the 19th Dynasty pharaoh Seti I and his son Rameses II. Could the Niagara Falls mummy be that of Seti's father, Rameses I, which has never been found? If it were, said Carlos Museum curator Peter Lacovara, it would be returned to Egypt.
Looking at the royal mummies in the Cairo Museum, this past December, I could see that the one in Atlanta would not seem out of place among them, but I asked three Egyptologists who have seen it firsthand if they believe it could be a pharaoh's. "The mummification techniques used are certainly consistent with a 19th Dynasty mummy," says ARCHAEOLOGY contributing editor Bob Brier. "In addition, this is top-of-the-line mummification, a wealthy person who got what he paid for. Furthermore, the position of the arms is consistent with a royal mummy. So there are real reasons to entertain the idea that we have a royal 19th Dynasty mummy." In Egypt, I spoke with Salima Ikram, a mummy specialist at the American University in Cairo. "I went there completely suspicious," she says, recalling her own trip to Atlanta. "The method of mummification is what I was looking at, and what it looked like to me was more late 18th, as in tail end of 18th, to 19th Dynasty. Obviously it is royal because of its arm position." The high position of the Atlanta mummy's arms is, she says, unlike the lower crossed-arm pose found centuries later on some 26th Dynasty mummies.
"I first met this particular mummy something like ten years ago, when I went to Niagara," says Aidan Dodson of Bristol University, speaking to me in his Cairo hotel suite with a view of the Giza pyramids. "I walked into the room and looked at it and said, 'Oh my god, it looks like a New Kingdom pharaoh's mummy.'" Like Brier and Ikram, Dodson places great weight on the position of the mummy's arms. "There are," he says, "no mummies of the New Kingdom of which I'm aware with both arms fully crossed like that of anybody other than a pharaoh."
If this is a royal mumy, how can we identify which pharaoh it is? Scholars are debating the evidence from a close examination of the mummy and the mummification techniques used on it; from accounts of the mid-nineteenth-century antiquities trade in Luxor and the discovery of a royal mummy cache at Deir el-Bahri; and modern scientific techniques including X-ray images, CAT scans, and facial profiling.
The Atlanta mummy is scheduled to go on display at the Carlos Museum in late April, before returning to Egypt, perhaps this fall. For more than 140 years, the mummy was neglected and unrecognized. "Nobody was prepared to believe--it seemed too incredible--there could be a royal mummy in a freak show in Niagara Falls," says Dodson. Who is it? The mummification techniques and pose point to it being a pharaoh of the late 18th or 19th Dynasties, but the historical evidence is equivocal, and none of the three candidates--Horemheb, Rameses I, and Rameses VII--can be entirely eliminated. The Atlanta mummy's estimated age at time of death, more than 45 years, doesn't help since all three came to power later in life. Perhaps an identification will be made one day. DNA analysis might do the job, eliminating Horemheb as a candidate. Carbon dating would be able to separate Rameses VII from the other two. New evidence might also come from the Deir el-Bahri cache site, or a comprehensive comparative study of the royal mummies. But that is for the future. For now it is enough that the mummy, probably that of a pharaoh, will go home.
Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. He would like to thank those who contributed their observations to this article and Jonathan Wickham of ZoeTV for sharing his research about James Douglas undertaken for an upcoming NOVA documentary on the Atlanta mummy. Travel to Egypt for this story was made possible by the International Executive Service Corps.